Ten Years a Londoner

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On 29 April 2005, when I was 22, I landed in London. Fresh off the boat from New Zealand I had little more than a secondhand backpack, a new A-Z and a couple of hundred quid in the bank. Not even enough for a deposit on a room (I think a part of me was driven by the romantic notion that I might become a struggling artist.) I figured I’d stay for a year, get some writing in, and that would be my big adventure.

Ten years later and I’m still in London, still writing, and it’s still a big adventure.

For me the UK – particularly London – was always the fantasy world. I wanted to live there. I wanted to step inside a Kinks song. I wanted dreaming spires, famous literature, tally-ho British accents, black cabs and cobblestones. Inside of me was a British person screaming out for a cup of tea.

This place is not for everyone. London will either eat you alive or nourish you. But I have thrived here, despite having to adapt to life in a city where there are almost twice as many people than in all of New Zealand. From here I have been able to explore many corners of the glorious British Isles; I have camped in Wales, hiked in Scotland, kissed a castle in Ireland, climbed to the highest peak in the Lake District, been wassailing in Cornwall, gone surfing in Devon, stalked the Beatles’ old haunts in Liverpool, cycled to Brighton beach and walked the entire length of the river Thames, from sea to source.
New Zealand is my homeland; the UK is my home.

But London is where I hang my hat.

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Meeting squirrels, 2005
This city offers the buzz of opportunity and a merging of cultures. It has its finger on the pulse of the world, one toe in the newest of the new and in the other dipped far back in the gore and romance of history. Coming from a country where everything is fresh, young and remarkably unburdened with the gritty weight of the ancient, it fills me with unending amazement to stroll over the cobbles where Kings lost their heads, or walk down a street where Rudyard Kipling lived and wrote his first (failed) novel. When I had to stay overnight in the Royal London hospital I was irrationally excited to be on the same premises where Joseph Merrick had lived and died, and that the shop he had been exhibited in on Whitechapel Road was visible from my ward (big-time Elephant Man fangirl right here). Even the church down the road from my building was where a young (Captain) James Cook – the credited founder of my homeland – went to Sunday mass with his mummy.

 

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First London flat, Cricklewood

It’s nice to think back to 2005, before life revolved around smartphones and social media. Flats didn’t come with wifi. I didn’t own a computer. I had a jar of change for investing in the internet cafés that peppered the local high street, banging out long emails home as other foreigners made loud long-distance phone calls in the adjacent booths.

I read more books. I had fewer belongings. I wore bootleg jeans and flip flops – although I still called them jandals back then – and my hair was straighter, shorter, blonder. I was more patient; less cynical. I was naive, but with that, also more fearless.

The Shard didn’t exist. Nor did the Cheese Grater, Heron Tower, the Walkie Talkie, One New Change or Potter’s Field. I’ve seen them all appear.

Chip and pin was a brand new banking concept (although NZ had been using it for years).

On the music scene, the Kaiser Chiefs were predicting a riot while Oasis were singing about the importance of being idle. Crazy Frog was – regrettably – a big hit. (It would still be a year before Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen were household names.)

Ken Livingstone was the Mayor of London. Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

I had been living in the city just gone two months when London won the Olympic bid and the city rejoiced. The next day, July 7th terrorists detonated bombs on the Underground. I was on the Tube, pulling into Tower Hill when the bomb went off at Aldgate. It took hours for my mother to reach me, having seen the breaking news, while over here, right in the thick of it, I was absolutely oblivious to what was happening. It was a strange time to be in London. I wrote this email home a couple of weeks later.

But I also saw the city band together in the aftermath, just as I’ve seen it rise and fall, rise and fall, from violent riots to community pride. Daily acts of aggression married with daily acts of kindness is the London norm. A web of extremes; it’s a fine balance. Sometimes it will wear you out and then you will need to escape to greener, cleaner pastures. Walk in the woods. Swim in the sea. Talk to strangers. Stop and slow down. Clear your head.

But London is ready for you when you get back. For better or for worse, through richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, the city has not deserted me. I shall continue to hang my hat here for some time yet.

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